Interview with Willie Bryan

November 8, 2018

Brilliant, shy and unassuming…but he’s still….. King Billy

HE was the first Offaly player to reach for the coveted Sam Maguire Cup.

He was one of the best midfield players the game has ever seen, and will be most remembered for ‘blotting-out’ the great Mick O’Connell in the 1972 All-Ireland final replay.

Shy and unassuming Willie Bryan was a class act that would shine even brighter in today’s game. He was passionate about the Offaly jersey whether wearing it in championship, league or just a challenge match.

But like most Offaly supporters at the moment he is saddened by the state of Offaly football and disgusted by the attitude of some of the people who wear the tri-colour jersey, as well as some of those just gone!

What was it like growing up in Walsh Island in the 50’s?

‘Growing up in Walsh Island was a lot of hardship because we were in the middle of the bog and times were bad. It was just about getting food on the table. We spent the summer working in the bog and then played football. Football was your only outlet. Times were so bad then but you didn’t notice back then because they had never been any different. It was all just football. Walsh Island wouldn’t have been very strong I think they were junior’.

Who were your footballing heroes?

‘Well you had Sean Brereton. He was actually from Bracknagh but he played for Walsh Island, Offaly and even for Ireland. But my hero was Jack Kenna from Laois. He lived in Walsh Island because he worked for Bord Na Mona. He was a superb footballer and totally two footed’.

Who was your biggest influence on football?

‘We had a teacher called Randall McCarthy who gave us a lot of his time. The minute you finished school or working in the bog you just went straight up to the field and you kicked the ball until it got dark. Then you went home to bed. For those who listened to him and I certainly did he was very good with us. He used to have this left footed week and the next was right footed week. So one week you had to kick with your left and if you used your right foot it was a free against you. People used to think I was left footed he improved me that much. It got to the stage it didn’t matter which foot I threw the ball too. He was very patient and gave us a lot of his time. I know he enjoyed it when he seen a few of us coming through the ranks’.

How long did you play for Walsh Island?

‘I suppose I started in 1964 and finished up around 1979. I never played with any other club even though I lived in Dublin. I never felt we had a wholesome panel of 20 plus. The panel itself wasn’t that strong apart from the first 15. You always had one young lad coming through but then you would get an injury to one of the starting players. I played for years and years hoping to play in a county final but Thomas O’Connor made his senior debut in a county final. We were always short of very good subs. Walsh Island had a very small pick’.

Is it true yourself and your brother Harry used to share the same boots?

‘Yes that’s right. (laughs) Harry was left footed and I was right footed so that’s the way we worked it. He was a year or two older than me of course so I had to make up the difference by wearing a couple of extra pairs of socks’. (laughs)

Where you disappointed you retired before the great 6 in a row run?

‘I played for two of them, ’78 and ’79. I remember we went up to play a challenge match in Dublin and we only had the bare 15. I was standing in the middle of the field with PJ Mahon, a great stalwart of Walsh Island and we were picking the team. A ball bounced about 4 yards in front of me. I put up my arm to catch it and something just went. It was a slipped disc. That was the beginning of the end for me. I struggled on for a while but I was never the same. It was pure hardship. I got an operation but I could never get back. There was also a fear factor about it too. I went through so much with it and still do to this day. But I was lucky enough to be involved in two championships. It’s easy enough to give it up when you’re injured because all you want to do is get well’.

Who was the best player you played with at Walsh Island?

‘There were great players that got nothing out of it. My friend Billy Comerford was very good and one of the best to ever come out of Walsh Island. He was on the verge of the Offaly team in 60/61. His brother Noel was full back as well and also a great footballer’.

How do you rate Walsh Island’s chances in senior this year?

‘Not this year but I expect something in the next two or three years. They are making great strides at the moment. I went to the Leinster club match that day in Wexford with my two brothers, Harry and Pat. We drove in and saw the place and it looked like a hotel. I turned to the boys and said ‘were screwed here lads’. But they were very impressive and they have a good young team. I see now they have a junior C team. They might not be doing well but in my time we could hardly field one team never mind two. To be honest it would be no big deal to win the Offaly championship at the moment it is that poor. Walsh Island definitely won’t embarrass themselves though’.

What was difference last year and previous year’s failings?

‘You have got to loose before you can appreciate winning. I seen them a few times in 2008 and they played very well and I thought they would win it but Croghan beat them off the field in the final. Their younger lads are maturing too’.

How do you rate the current standard of refereeing in Offaly?

‘I was never a great lover of referee’s even though I was never sent off. There are some good ref’s out there but in all honesty who would want to be a referee? It is a thankless job. Jaysus there is some bad one’s though you would wonder if they know the rules at all’.

Who was your toughest opponent?

‘There was one man I could never manage and that was Ken Rennicks of Meath. He was a good enough footballer and he was a cross country runner and he was as strong as an ox. I wasn’t afraid of anyone but I didn’t like playing on him simply because I couldn’t play him’! (laughs)

Was it always an ambition to play for Offaly?

‘I used to train or at least I thought I was training with the likes of Sean Brereton. Sean used to have an Offaly jersey and I just desperately wanted to play for Offaly. In actual fact as a young lad I actually got one of my good white shirts and a bit of green and yellow paint and I painted my shirt the Offaly colours. I got the paint out of the piggery. Every council house had a piggery back then. I hung up the shirt to let it dry and then I put it on. Eventually lumps of paint started to fall off it and it broke my heart. That’s how bad I wanted to play for Offaly and wear the Offaly jersey’.

What was it like to win a minor All Ireland with Offaly in 1964? The counties first and only ever minor title.

‘I was very small at that time and I was the only person from Walsh Island at the trials. All I was trying to do was to get the ball and pass it. An Uncle of mine told me to cut out that s***e and take a few scores yourself. I wasn’t blessed with feet. I could score but you wouldn’t want to be depending on me. So at the next trial I done what he said but to be honest I didn’t think I done very well. I had been doing well but this particular evening I had a real stinker and thought that’s it I am going to be dropped. But I decided I was going to take a jersey. I stuck a jersey in my bag and like that John Dowling who was secretary at the time walked in and more or less said all the jerseys were going missing and he would have to search everyone’s bag. I said to myself that f***s me up anyway! (laughs) But for whatever reason he didn’t search my bag and I got to keep my Offaly jersey and I got called back in and made the team. I truly felt I had played myself off the team’.

What can you remember about the final against Cork?

‘Not a whole lot to be honest. It is hard to believe it is 46 years ago. I remember we had Johnny Coughlan corner back against Cork’s up and coming star Eric Philpott. Johnny was very solid for us but Johnny and Philpott were sent off and I didn’t even realise until half time. I remember seen him in the dressing room at half time with his clothes on and asking what he was doing. Only then I found out he was sent off. I think I scored a point but couldn’t be sure’,

You played with Offaly U21’s. Is it true that after an All-Ireland semi final you had to be carried off with exhaustion?

‘We played Mayo in O’Connor Park. Mayo were the All-Ireland champions at the time. I actually fainted after the match to be honest. The game was a lot of pulling and dragging but no it wasn’t from exhaustion. I would have played on for another couple of hours if they let me! There was about twenty thousand at the match, sure they were hanging out of the rafters. Immediately after the match I fainted. We should have won the All-Ireland but Derry robbed us by playing typical boring defensive football. They spent the game pulling and dragging us’.

When did you make your Offaly senior debut?

‘I made my debut in the league of ’65. I made my championship debut in ’66 against Kildare in a replay. Pa Connolly came on full forward on Greg Hughes and punched the winning point and they beat us’.

Should Offaly have won the All-Ireland in 1969?

‘No I don’t think so. Kerry beat us and deservedly so. They beat us in the league final as well. Laois had beaten us the year before. A lot of the minors from ’64 were coming through and then Fr Scully took over us. He was based in Dublin. He was a lovely man and a great communicator. He was a lovely human being. Back in them days we didn’t need managers because we didn’t need to be pampered. He used to give us a loan of his car too. He gave it to us going to Mick Ryan’s wedding. So we drove to the wedding, drank about 30 pints and then dropped the car back to him. Then he dropped us back into town. But anyway we had a good team coming up with a mix of some very experience lads and like I said earlier, you had to loose before you appreciate winning’.

There is a story behind how you came to be captain for Offaly in 1971?

‘Yeah the way things worked then was that whatever club won the championship one of their players would be captain of Offaly next year. Gracefield beat us in the 1970 final but they had no players on the county team. John Smith from Gracefield could and should have been on the team’.

What was the atmosphere like in 1971? Could the players sense this was there year?

‘There was a confidence about us. We had been beaten by Meath in 1970 Leinster final. I think that was a huge wake up call and maybe the best thing to ever happen to us. To score 5-12 and not win was very unusual. In ’71 we done well in the league and we were winning matches. Winning is a great habit. John Dowling who was county secretary at the time kept telling me to make sure I had a speech ready in case we won. I didn’t put anything together at all that’s not my thing. I am not into making speeches I just said if it happens it happens and I will think of something. Captain never really meant anything to me. We won and lost as a team. The only thing I ever thought the captain was for was the coin toss. We had a strong panel with some great subs. Usually subs can keep you on a team but our subs were very good’.

Were you confident of doing the two in a row?

‘Yes we had gotten the monkey off our back and there was a confidence about us. We were definitely in with a shout and probably should have beaten Kerry the first day but we managed it in the replay. Kerry had never been beaten in a replay. We felt we were good enough and just had to prove it on the day. We suffered two big losses when Eugene Mulligan and Johnny Cooney got injured and I certainly don’t think Kerry could have suffered the same losses and coped like we did’.

Were you nervous at the prospect of marking the great Mick O’Connell?

‘You would of course. But he was nice to play on. He just went out to play football and so did I. I marked him a few times actually and to be honest I felt he only got the better of me once. It was a railway cup replay final down in Cork. There might have been a few pints involved the night before! He never gave me a look at it’.

Your performance in the replay in the 1972 All-Ireland final is said to have been your greatest ever?

‘Yeah that’s just the way things work out. I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. I scored a couple of nice points but again it was a team performance. Having lost the two lads to injury it just showed the subs were just as good as the starting 15’.

Is it true that yourself and Martin Furlong used to drink before most games?

‘No not really. That is a myth. I remember going to Killbeggan one day and I gave this lad a lift. He didn’t know me. We started talking football anyway and Martin Furlong had been at a wedding on the Friday and Offaly got murdered on the Sunday. I didn’t play well and Martin didn’t play well either. But this man in my car says to me ‘sure there you have Martin Furlong and Willie Bryan were at a wedding Friday night and they had to be carried out of the place’. Well first off I wasn’t at the wedding and Martin certainly wasn’t carried out of it. I dropped him off at a petrol station in Kilbeggan which was owned by Peter Nolan from Walsh Island. I drove off and Peter waved at me. I looked in the wing mirror and I could see the man asking Peter who I was. Peter said that’s Willie Bryan. Peter told me he nearly died of embarrassment. Look I always enjoyed my few pints on a Saturday night. But the week of ’71 All-Ireland final I stayed in Dublin all week away from the public eye. I didn’t want to be in Walsh Island among all the experts. I went down to O’Connell Street on the Saturday night and I did see a few fans. I enjoyed the banter. I went for a few pints on my own and listened to some people talking about the final. Sometimes your name was mentioned and sometimes it wasn’t. But it was great to just sit there in peace. On my way home I got the Sunday Independent. I got up the next morning and went to mass then met up with the team. I stayed away from the hype or else you might start believing it. I would always stick up for Martin though. Although he did have a tipple of brandy before he went out onto the field, sometimes I had one too! But it was only a tipple’.(laughs)

Is it true yourself and Martin weren’t fond of training?

‘I remember we used to go to Edenderry, tog out in Larkins car park and go to Ballyfore to train. We would train under car lights shinning onto the pitch. Tom Darcy was training us and he was a serious man to train. In fact we couldn’t do the training he wanted us to do. We were training in the Curragh in the winter. But at the back of Ballyfore pitch there was a few high trees. So one night we were doing all these laps and hard running. I wasn’t built for hard training or running! But anyway as we were doing our laps in the dark I said I would duck out behind the big trees for a lap or two. As I was approaching the top of the field I ran straight and went to hide behind the trees but unfortunately I fell over Martin Furlong who was already hiding on the ground’! (laughs)

Why do you think the Railway cup has been suspended this year?

‘It has lost its appeal. Years ago you would have gotten 50 or 60 thousand at a game. It’s possibly the lure of Sky television and other sports. It is very hard to compete with the way they portray soccer these days. I watched the highlights of the FA cup final and in 90 minutes there was one scuttering goal. I just thought to myself about how much money their earning and all they could produce was one goal, a tap in from 3 yards! At least at rugby they put their body on the line and there is a sense of honesty about it. There is no honesty in soccer at all. Them young lads are conditioned that way. I wouldn’t agree with pay for play in GAA. At least the GAA owned their grounds. The lads you hear given out about the GAA are the soccer lads’.

What do your two All-Stars mean to you?

‘Not a whole lot to be honest but you wouldn’t like if you didn’t get one! I thought I should have got one in 1973 but I wasn’t exactly heart broken. I was more pleased with the Texaco player of the year award. We got the trip to San Francisco with the All-Stars but I had to play for Offaly so I never actually played for the All-Stars. I would have loved to have played with Mick O’Connell’.

What do you make of the current Offaly seniors?

‘Not a lot. They just seem to have lost that Offaly never say die attitude. The pride in the jersey just seems to have disappeared. When we pulled on the Offaly jersey and went out to play Kildare, Westmeath or Laois sure we were already a couple of points up. It is crying shame. The talent is there but the pride isn’t. I know one player that told a taxi driver in Tullamore who is a very good friend of mine after Offaly had been beaten in the back door system ‘sure were not a back door team’. Well back door or front door if you have a chance to win a championship you take it. Did you ever hear such a statement? Imagine having that attitude. I met that same player or former player now recently and said hello to him and he just grunted at me. I said to myself Willie you are some gobs***e to lower yourself to talk to that lad. Going around with his Offaly hoodie thinking he’s someone and he after costing us more games! I saw on the paper the other day that Offaly weren’t even listed to bet on for the All-Ireland. They used to say if Paddy McCormack was injured and you hung his photo on the cross bar it was nearly enough. He had that much of a presence. Martin Furlong was the same. The spine of the team is still unknown. Who knows who will play against Meath. Players have to be established in their positions. I wore number 8, simple as. Everyone knew I wore number 8 because that was my number. I think Niall Smith is a huge loss as well. He is the best midfielder in the county and has a great pair of hands, just like his father’.

How do you think Offaly will fair against Meath?

‘Who knows its hard to say. That never say die attitude is gone from Offaly now. They need to get that back quick. If we were loosing by 2 points with 2 minutes to go we still knew we would win and what’s more is so did the opposition. The hurlers under Joe Dooley seem to have that attitude back. They are going very well I think’.

How do you rate the current standard of football to them days in the 60’s?

‘It is a different era from now because football is all we had. There are so many diversifications and young people are better educated. It is probably tougher on them than it was on us. We knew no better because we were poor and all we had was football. The standard at the moment is disgustingly poor in this county anyway. They have lost that thing that we had in abundance, how much we wanted to play for Offaly. Every single time I put on that Offaly jersey I felt bigger. I wasn’t a big man but I genuinely felt bigger. Whether it was an All-Ireland final or a challenge match in the muck in the winter it was an honour to be handed that Offaly jersey. That is gone now. They have more interest in walking around in their tracksuits and getting attention. We used to try and hide after matches but these lads, even if the s***e is kicked out of them their walking around with the chest out as proud as ever. This crack of going to disco’s in their Offaly tops is a load of bull too. There is some of them more interested in their gear. There is a lot of work to be done to get Offaly back to where they can be. But they may get the respect and pride back in the Offaly jersey. Whether we won or lost I genuinely tried to hide. There would have been too many lads patting you on the back telling you were no good or you done brilliant. The worst thing you could do is believe them’.

What did you make of the whole situation with Richie Connor’s appointment?

‘The whole player power thing was very unfair. He never got a chance to prove himself. Richie wouldn’t have been a bad operator in fairness and for the way he was ousted was disgusting. He had been there and done that. The lads responsible aren’t good enough either. It’s not about managers or players. If you have nothing inside, in the heart, well you have nothing. Managers mean nothing really, there only there to bond the team. If your not hungry you’ll win nothing anyway. To sum up anyway he was shafted’.

Who do you think will win the Offaly championship in 2010?

‘You can never discount Rhode and I suppose Clara. There doesn’t seem to be anyone after that though. I think Walsh Island wont embarrass themselves mind you. I think Rhode blew it last year. Clara won it because Rhode threw it away’.

Do you believe in the current beer bans been imposed by teams?

‘An absolute load of s***e. There’s nothing wrong with having 2 or 3 pints. What’s the best way of getting to know somebody? By having a few pints with him of course. Fella’s open up after a few drinks. More nights in training we beat the s***e out of each other but once you walked off the field it was forgotten about over a few drinks’.

You were recently inducted into the Offaly hall of fame. How proud did that make you feel?

‘It was brilliant. I actually thought they had forgotten about me for a while. Some younger guys had been inducted like Richie Connor and I thought maybe I was gone off the radar. But it is a huge honour and I suppose there can only ever be one first All-Ireland winning captain. Actually I have to say I am so delighted that Sean Foran was inducted this year. How it took them so long to induct him I don’t know because I can tell you he was brilliant. He is one of the nicest men I have ever met. He is a gentleman of the highest calibre and he was one of the best midfielders of his time and of all time. I was disappointed I couldn’t go to his big night but personal circumstances at the time just didn’t allow it’.

Hopefully the passion and pride in donning an Offaly jersey may return sooner rather than later as another championship dawns!